Thursday, April 21, 2016

Unusual Occupations - The Ragpicker

R-  Ragpicker

Sunder bans – Declared by the UN as a protected ecosystem, the Delta known for its most famous resident the Bengal tiger and the variety of flora and fauna sprawled across the fertile Gangetic plain spread across Bangladesh and borders of India before it goes on to join the Bay of Bengal is an exotic travel destination that is in the must travel list of any nature traveller.

Who would not want to live there ? you would ask.

Who could possibly live there? Asks Nooruddin.

Nooruddin and his family have undertaken a long dangerous journey from across the Sunderbans delta. It is not a story that they would want to talk about. After they had been displaced, they lived liked nomads and along the way did menial jobs as labourers in the agricultural lands. But the labour was hard and the produce hardly enough to make ends meet. Leave alone educate the boys or give away the girls in marriage for a decent dowry. 

There are restrictions imposed by the forest authorities in venturing into the delta by the governments of India as well as Bangaldesh whose borders skirt along the rich exotic delta. The delta shelters many endangered species among which the Bengal tiger enjoys all the attention, particularly if you looked at the number of international tourists and zoologists who throng the delta is anything to go by.  

Apparently in the good old days, the forest officials could be bribed and for decent money that passed hands they could gain entry into the delta for fishing or gathering forest produce. With all the international attention, Sunder bans was becoming impenetrable for even its erstwhile residents and the local bribe mongering government official was getting impregnable.

 As a teenager, Nooruddin moved on from the Sunderban delta  to the nearby city of Calcutta to look for work.
He ended up doing odd jobs as rag picker loading the  garbage lorries for  a contractor who had sub-contracted it to another one for daily wages. The contractor had the contract for the Calcutta municipal corporation. Nooruddin and many like him knew that they were paid less than half  of the minimum daily wages that was stipulated by the communist backed government that ruled in the city of Calcutta.. Nooruddin was always  paid in cash and his name was never part of any wage register. But then that was the way things were as it suited their contractor as well as them.  All because it helped them remain inconspicuous 

That was before he met his cousin who had come down on a holiday. His cousin had done well in life.  If the grand wedding he pulled off for his sister was any indication of the money that he had made.   Therefore when his cousin offered for Nooruddin to come along with him to Bangalore, he knew it would be utterly foolish to refuse the offer.

Five years ago after many years of doing odd jobs in Calcutta and the mining city of Dhanbad, Nooruddin boarded the unreserved compartment of the Dhanbad mail that would take him down south, far away from familiar places that he could still call home with hopes and promises to make a decent living.  

It is about 3.00 am in the morning.  The street dogs are asleep and the entire metropolis is in deep slumber.  The huts on the end of the road at a bylane on a vacant plot in Ramamurthy nagar, in Bangalore is slowly springing into action.  One by one, they load up a huge sack at the back of their tricycle and pedal along in different directions.  Some of them who do not have a tricycle load up the sack on their backs and head off to find litter strewn along on the streets. At this twilight hour the main roads are lit with bright sodium vapour lamps. 

Before sunrise Nooruddin would be scavenging the streets and collecting cardboard, thermo Cole, plastic of different grades ranging from wrappers of potato chips to the empty coke bottles, water bottles, and used plastic oil and milk wrappers.  He has been designated a few by lanes where his neighbours would not compete with him. They all have been designated similar by lanes and streets from where they would pick up litter that would then be segregated washed and sold to the contractor by weight.

On a day if he has been able to collect a sackful of litter in his morning rounds and a sackful in his evening rounds, he would be able to make around Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 ( US$ 5 -7 in 2016 ) depending upon the quality of the garbage.  Once a week the contractor would come along to collect the segregated garbage that will then be reused and recycled by factories that use them to make other things.          

 The tricycle that he pedals along is something he has leased out from the contractor and so is his hut on the edge of the empty plot of land. With his collection that he sells to the contractor, he also pays his lease rent for the tricycle and the hut and the remaining goes in buying the groceries and provisions for the family.  He would set aside some money every week from his earnings that would then be sent home to his brothers in Sunderban or Calcutta, all in cash neatly wrapped and sealed in a cloth bag when one of the fellow workers goes home. 

Once every year when he has saved up enough money, Nooruddin and his family would go home for a month or two before returning back to Bangalore .

If you look around there are about 30-40 huts in that  plot of land and all of them are engaged in the same occupation and are employed by the same contractor. In front of the hut which he shares with his wife and two children, he offloads his day’s collection. While his wife and the other women busy themselves to segregate the garbage,

Nooruddin  has gone behind the hut where a bucket of hot water and soap await him in their makeshift bathroom. Here he would scrub himself clean before he settles down to eat this meal cooked by his wife. 
His wife along with the other women in their neighbourhood, go about the job of segregating the garbage into piles of wet waste (oil wrappers, food packets) and dry waste. The dry waste is then divided into various categories of paper and plastic so that it fetches them different prices by the kilogram.

Nooruddin is thankful to Bangalore and the opportunities that is has brought him and his family.  His children along with the children of others in the neighbourhood go to a nearby school that is run by an NGO a non governmental organization, a charitable entity funded among many others by CRY who have taken it upon themselves to ensure that all children remain in school and become literate.  The local government run school is not something that he or his fellow workers would approach.  Because that would mean having to reveal their identity and get counted among the population. 
In the lowest rung in the value chain among the rag pickers are the ones that set out by foot with a sack over their backs to collect garbage.  They fill the sacks and leave them on the side of the main roads, where the contractor’s tractor would then come by before dawn and pick up the sacks to be transported to the garbage collection centers. 
Then there are the Rag pickers like Nooruddin who have their own Tricycles and go about collecting garbage on their vehicles leased out to them by their masters.

On top of the value chain are the local BBMP contract workers who have the mandate to collect garbage from apartment complexes and office premises.   Apart from a salary that they get paid by the government they also segregate the dry garbage   and sell it to the contractors for money. 

Nooruddin explains why the garbage segregation mandate  by the government does not work effectively.  He says if you sell your dry garbage directly to vendors  like him, the BBMP would never bother to collect your wet waste and the reject waste.  Their money comes from the dry waste that gets them the extra buck and it is in their interests to let things be, Nooruddin and his neighbours do not venture out anywhere where the BBMP collects garbage.
These are locals and their lot is well aware that their survival as migrants in a city like Bangalore could be threatened if they intruded in the space that is exclusively reserved for the local garbage collectors ( pourakarmika) employed by the local municipal corporation.

What he does not say is that most of them are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Cities of Delhi and 
Mumbai are infamous for being hostile to these immigrants.  In those cities many of them change their names to Hindu sounding names in order to avoid being tortured by the police and the locals. Even when they change their names their Hindi and Bengali accent gives it away. The police atrocities meted out to Bangladeshi immigrants in these cities are only surpassed by the injustices they suffer at the hands of locals.

It is therefore that  in recent years they illegal Bangladeshi immigrants  have set sail southwards where they are so spread out and inconspicuous that they do not attract attention from the police or  the local politicians. More often than not their community would find a local sympathizer under whose protection they live. As payback to the protection they receive from the local community they end up working for them. They do the most menial jobs which the locals would not want to do.  

Rag picking, is one of them.           

World over illegal immigrants do enjoy the patronizing of a local sympathizer or the labour mafia.  They are the ones that grease he palm of the officials and keep unorganized labour markets buoyant.
Whether it is the Latin American refugees who illegally migrate into California, the Sikhs and Pakistani labourers who cross the Algerian sea all the way to go to Greece, France and all the way upto England and work behind the scenes in the kitchens of the Indian restaurants, or the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant who sets sail into the seas in coastal Kerala, the pattern is the same. 

Extreme poverty, political upheaval and the attraction of the Promised Land is what keeps people from these places confront untold misery and appalling living conditions to leave home in order to earn a decent living.  The contribution of illegal immigrants in running the economy  is perhaps grossly underestimated, given the near impossible access to data of their labour’s contribution into the economy of the countries that they have illegally migrated into.      

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